Fruits of the Loom: Fabrics with Multiple Personalities

Just when you think you have it down pat and can confidently state that this is lawn and this is muslin and this is percale and feel smug about your expertise, along comes a clunker.

My first clunker was reading a 1933 Sears catalog which listed cambric in its percale section and which I thought somewhat strange.  The description then went on to say that its finest percales had a cambric finish and collectively called its finest percales cambrics.  That was probably wonderful news for the seamstress of the day, but for untrained collectors like me it proved to be a bit of a snag in putting a tag on my vintage percales.  It’s just once more stress we lay people have to cope with, feeling our smugness evaporate and making us truly sub-lay.

My second clunk arrived when reading an excellent reference book Staple Cotton Fabrics by John Hoye, 1942, which describes the converting of cotton into its various weaves and textures. His comments are the basis for this column. His eye-opening statement was that there are more finished cloth names than there are basic fabrics owing to the fact that different finishes are often used on the same gray cloth [unbleached cotton goods as they come from the loom] and that the finished cloth often takes on the name of the finish.

Are you with me so far?

  • Just remember the color gray bears no resemblance to what we visualize as unbleached.
  • In staple cloths having a large variety of uses, there is one name for the gray goods and a different name for each finish the cloth is converted into.
  • A standard print cloth can be converted into as many as 30 different finishes, each of these having a different name and a separate use.
  • Many fabrics after finishing bear little resemblance to the original gray cloth.

Still with me?    

  • Gray cloth is converted by bleaching, dying, printing and finishing.
  • Most cotton fabrics have to be converted before they can be used and are then known as converted cloths.
  • The coarsest gray cloth is cheesecloth and tobacco cloth.

It is the following two gray cloth categories which are of prime interest to collectors:

  1. Print cloth — carded cloths made with the same yarns as cheesecloth but more threads per inch.  Just remember that print means carded and not a printed design or pattern.
  2. Fine plain cloth — called gray longcloth and is generally combed and has higher thread count than print cloth.

To help put this all into better perspective, imagine you have been handed a piece of gray print cloth and a piece of gray fine plain cloth, both fresh from the loom.

Here are all the things than can happen:

PRINT CLOTH  is converted into more different finishes than any other gray cloth. Millions of yards are converted into printed percales and white goods such as cambric, muslin, lawn and longcloth.

– Uses in gray state: wiping rags, mattress covers, insulations and coverings, bookbindings, bases for oilcloth, rubberized fabric, imitation leathers, grain and flour bags.

– Finishes used: muslin, nainsnook, cambric, percale, French, lawn, collar, messaline, canvas, sign-and-label cloth, Schreiner, organdy, mercerized, beetle, imitation, chambray, elastic, duck, embossed, cretonne, window holland, plisse crepe, rubber, resin-coated finishes and cotton typewriter paper.

– Uses in finished state: shirts, dresses, shorts, interlining, aprons, linings, underwear, pajamas, seamed sheets, pillow cases, window shades, handkerchiefs, artificial flowers, bedspreads, curtains, draperies, children’s dresses, rompers.

FINE PLAIN CLOTH is combed although high-thread count carded cloth can be used

– Uses in gray state:   pillow cases, bolster cases, mattress covers.

– Finishes used: lawn, organdy, nainsnook, batiste, mercerized, percaline, Schreiner, muslin, cambric, chintz, cretonne, beetle, longcloth.

– Uses in finished state: shirts, dresses, starched collars, handkerchiefs, underwear, bedspreads, lining, lampshades, pillow cases, crib sheets, draperies.

Did you note the wide range of goods and the mix of finishes with names of finishes of what we think of as names of fabric? Let the confusion continue. Here are some fabrics familiar to us which can have the following finishes:

– Lawn, a basic fine-yarn plain-weave gray cloth used in the converting of fine, sheer, soft fabrics; also a name of a starched, crisp-finished cloth [lawn organdy for example]: batiste, percaline, chiffonette, organdy, nainsnook, lawn, printed, friction calendered, mercerized, Schreiner.

– Organdy, lightest and sheerest cloth produced:  starched, blister crepe, print, flock dot.

– Dimity: mercerized, lawn, organdy, nainsnook.

– Sateen: embossed, messaline, mercerized, Schreiner, chintz, imitation mercerized, firm starched, flame resistant, sueded.

So it’s possible to have one fabric with the name of another fabric as that 1933 Sears catalog advertised. Now you can fret away your days knowing that your lawn may be something else and you can develop a multiple anxiety personality of your own.

The textile industry isn’t an easy world to understand unless you have been schooled in that environment and it is a daily part of your life. The lay person, however, can acquire an appreciable knowledge through research using good reference books which touch upon the various aspects of the industry. Not all components will appeal to you but you can seek out those which come closest to your particular interests. Knowing the makeup of your fabric makes it that much more interesting.

The Hoye book is an excellent reference on understanding the relationship between loom and finish. A plus is the marvelous photos for identifying weaves; book is printed on enameled stock which makes photos really pop. Copies are available; search
http://www.addall.com for prices and bookstore.

Fabric sources   last month’s column contained places for locating vintage fabric.

Sometimes it is not possible to find the exact old fabric or color needed for your project. Here are some stores selling exquisite new versions of the old:
http://www.mini-magic.com — beautiful selection of swiss, english and italian cottons, wool and silks, trims and laces; caters to doll dressers and dressmakers alike; also conservation supplies.
http://www.farmhousefabrics.com — selection of imports and heirlooms increases monthly; newly arrived swiss cottons imitate victorian shirtings and dress fabrics; laces, trims and that hard-to-find double face silk satin ribbon in many widths.

About Joan Kiplinger:  Joan was an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and had since been peddling fabrications ever since.

3 Responses to “Fruits of the Loom: Fabrics with Multiple Personalities”

  1. Guest says:

    Hi, can you post something on synthetic fibers that are weaved into cloths? And the names of them? Thank you.

  2. Guest says:

    Hi, can you post something on synthetic fibers that are weaved into cloths? And the names of them? Thank you.

  3. Kirsten says:

    You betcha!
    Synthetics need a whole article of their own but a few to get you started that could be confusing are Tencel, which has a few different spellings of it’s own in the fiber and clothing industry but they are all the same fiber, Polyester, Nylon (yuck, but has it’s place somewhere, just not in my fabric stash), Acetate (double yuck!), and just to through you a really big looper, Rayon. Even though Rayon is considered a synthetic material because of the way it is processed into a fiber it is still also considered a natural fiber because it is made from wood pulp. Just another example of the confusion that is the fiber and fabric world. Check out these other articles for further explanations, they cover a lot. http://info.fabrics.net/?s=Synthetics. Also if you can find it a great resource to have on your book shelf is “A Dictionary Of Textile Terms by Dan River Inc.” Unfortunately the last I heard of this particular little book, it was out of print and fabric and clothing design students hold on to them like they are gold. So another good source that is easily found is the “Survey Of Historic Costume by Phyllis Tortora & Keith Eubank.” Any edition will do for research purposes and if you get the older ones in the used section of Powell’s Books in Portland OR you won’t have to pay an arm and a leg for it. They even will mail it to you. Amazon and ebay are good ways to find it too. The other thing you need know is that like the above article states about same fabrics having different finishes, it applies to synthetics as well. So know your finishes. Satin can refer to silk as well as Polyester, nylon, and Acrylic. This is because of the way the individual fibers are treated and processed to produce their final look. Another great confusion is Dupionni, Dupioni, Duponi etc. Historically this has only been in reference to a certain type of silk produced from two wild picked silk worm cocoons that were stuck together. In their processing the individual threads were stuck and created a slubby fabric when woven. However Polyester is now processed to produce the same look but their is a definite difference in its feel compared to silk. It tends to be rougher and stiffer and scratchy. Great for curtains that look the look but better on the wallet. Have fun researching!